Gorbachev Beleaguered at Home

Consumers rebel against reform plan as populist rival wins key political post

ARMS control was meant to be the focus of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's long-awaited summit with President Bush. But when the two leaders begin their talks, a key issue is likely to be the tumultuous Soviet political and economic scene - ranging from yesterday's stunning election of Boris Yeltsin to the presidency of the Russian Federation's Parliament to killings in Armenia to widespread criticism of the government's new economic plan.

Mr. Gorbachev arrives in Washington a beleaguered man. This was underscored yesterday by the victory of his toughest political rival, Mr. Yeltsin, despite Gorbachev's best efforts to deny him the top political post in the Russian Republic. The victory establishes Yeltsin as Gorbachev's only real individual competitor and creates the possibility of an alternative center of power in the country.

Yeltsin has an important soap box from which to whip up popular sentiment against Gorbachev's programs, which he finds too cautious. And with the Soviet Union increasingly breaking down into a collection of separate semi-nations that pass their own laws and ignore Moscow's dictates, Yeltsin in his position as the president of Russia could challenge Gorbachev for control of one of the Soviet leader's few remaining sure constituencies.

This explains why Gorbachev devoted much of his time on the first few days of the Russian Parliament to lobbying in the corridors. But the anti-Yeltsin campaign could not find a candidate who could win more votes than the gadfly populist.

Even so, it took all of Yeltsin's political skills to break a deadlock in the voting until he finally squeaked by with 535 votes, just four more than the minimum 51 percent needed to win.

Gorbachev's troubles were already evident in an uncharacteristically weak televised address he made to the nation Sunday evening. The Soviet leader's usual public relations sense seemed to escape him as he scolded and hectored the populace for not understanding that the government's planned price increases are for their own good.

``We are still the children of our times,'' he said. ``We have lots of complexes, and we are overburdened with old habits. We really like simple solutions to the most complex issues. They are not to be found.''

This blame-the-public tone - in American politics, often a sign that a politician is running out of ideas - emerged two weeks ago as Gorbachev worked the halls of the Russian Parliament. Gorbachev told reporters that it was the ``conservative mentality of Soviet citizens'' that was hindering the planned transition to a market economy.

On the nationalities front, Lithuania has taken a back seat for now to Armenia, where in the capital of Yerevan at least 20 civilians were killed Sunday by Soviet troops. Two soldiers were also reported dead. The clashes were a reminder that these deep-seated Soviet ethnic problems that vanish from the headlines don't really go away - they bubble under the surface until the next crisis comes along.

The killings took place when Soviet soldiers accompanying a passenger train into Yerevan fired on a crowd of people they claimed were trying to seize their weapons. Some eyewitnesses say the crowd was peaceful and had encircled the train to try to persuade the soldiers to leave.

At root lies the continuing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory inside neighboring Azerbaijan that is largely inhabited by Armenians but run by Azerbaijan. Armenia defied Moscow last week - and heightened tensions with Azerbaijan - when it decided to include Nagorno-Karabakh in local Armenian elections by allowing Armenian residents of the territory to vote secretly in their homes. Anticipating trouble and claiming a buildup of arsenals by Armenian militants, Moscow stepped up troop presence in the region.

Meanwhile, the more peaceful but also deadlocked situation over Lithuanian independence is likely to get greater play at the summit because of Washington's official policy of nonrecognition of the three Baltic republics' annexation by the Soviet Union.

In the long run, Lithuania is viewed as more threatening to Gorbachev's position than the crisis in the Caucasus, because it poses an immediate challenge to the territorial integrity. But for now Gorbachev looks set on insisting that all three Baltic republics follow the tough law on secession passed by the Soviet parliament in March.

The talk of Moscow remains the long-anticipated - and feared - announcement last week of a plan for eventual shift to a ``regulated market economy.'' Criticism has been legion, from the man on the street who balks at prices that will double or triple in some cases to respected economists like Vasily Selyunin, who sees merits to the program but also weaknesses that would ultimately make it unworkable.

In short, Mr. Selyunin said in a recent speech, the government plan maintains the system of state orders for a number of products, bars leasing and joint-stock arrangements in extractive industries, and retains strict price controls on raw materials like fuel and metals. This means prices for these won't rise to match inflation, which could lead to strikes in these industries. Miners have already stated their opposition to the economic plan. In the Ukrainian mining region of Donbass, miners will vote June 9 whether to go on strike.

In Moscow, a weekend rush to the stores has largely subsided, although for the most part, there never was the type of widespread ``panic'' and ``turmoil'' reported. Now that non-Muscovites are blocked from buying most Moscow goods, with the introduction of a passport control system to allow entrance into stores, Muscovites can breathe a little easier.

Still, the locals have mixed emotions. The outsiders, who used to account for 2 to 3 million extra people in Moscow each day, are largely blocked from buying goods out from under them. But introduction of the passport regime has underscored the sense of crisis over the economy.

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